Ralston on literature and anonymity

The greatest of the world’s literature is strangely anonymous. We learn from their writing nothing of the lives of Homer or Shakespeare. Even Dante is only an apparent exception to this rule. The actual circumstance, the personal detail of his life, is present in the Divine Comedy in solution. It can be precipitated only by knowledge gained from his other writings. Nothing is more important in his poem than its first line. Had Dante written mia vita rather than nostra vita he would not be the universal poet he is. This strange anonymity is absolutely true of Plato. The huge bulk of his writings contains only two or three references to himself, and these are of a very special sort — for example, we learn in the Apology that he was among those who offered to pay the fine which Socrates proposed at his trial, and in the Phaedo that he was sick on the last day of Socrates’ life. From the whole body of Plato’s Dialogues we learn only the history of his mind, never the story of his live, except in its single most decisive event: he came to know Socrates.

– from “The Grove of Academe“, an essay by William H. Ralston, Jr., appearing in The Sewanee Review Vol. 81, No. 1, Winter 1973. Emphasis added.

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